mom of all trades

mom of all trades

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Where the light gets in

Dr Denton Cooley, the name sounded exotic to my 6 year old self. It was unlike any other name I had heard before. It sounded exotic and important; a name to be uttered in hushed tones, respectfully, almost reverently. The fact that people were willing to travel to the opposite side of the earth, in the middle of a brutal winter to consult him, made him a sort of demigod in my eyes.

 To my sister and me, the celebrated cardiologist was nothing short of a hero, who had miraculously healed our beloved grandfather or ‘appachan’, as we fondly called him. I often picture my grandfather travelling with my father to faraway Houston, their maiden voyage to a foreign land; their bodies, used to tropical weather, reacting with shock to the sudden drastic  dip in temperature; their minds getting overwhelmed from having to absorb a whole new world around them.

Afterwards, when our grandfather lapsed into tales of his adventures abroad, he would describe the sterile hospital rooms and corridors, so clean that you could almost eat off its floors; the nurses with their kind, sympathetic eyes and accented instructions which made him feel almost guilty, for asking them to repeat it again, slowly. The huge portions of food they served, always with a helping of dessert, jelly which looked like brightly colored glass cubes or a sweet muffin, which he never managed to finish.

 His eyes lit up every time he spoke about Dr Cooley; the tall, soft spoken doctor who had given him the best gift a person could give another; the gift of time. Time, to watch his granddaughters grow from pig tailed girls to young women; time, to teach them the ways of the world, to love them, to know them and pass on his legacy to them.  His eyes turned moist and threatened to overflow when he spoke about Dr Cooley, who wore his celebrity status so lightly and treated each patient as a person first and not just a number to be ticked off the list, who took out the time to sit with the patient and his family, to answer their ‘silly’ doubts and dispel their fears. As Sir William Osler quoted, “A good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease”.

 “Have you seen the hands of God?’ he once asked me. Amused by my bewildered expression, he continued “it was a pair of hands that gently shook me awake, welcomed me into my new life after the surgery. It felt warm and surprisingly soft, as it held my hand and as I looked into Dr Cooley’s blue eyes speckled with a tinge of grey, I said to myself that these are the hands that gave me a new lease of life; these are the hands of God”.

“There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”.
-Leonard Cohen (Anthem)
You were that ray of light for our family, Dr Cooley. We thank you for that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A feast for the senses

It is not just any other day to linger in bed, but my eyes remain stubbornly shut, as I coax them to shed the cobwebs of delicious sleep that cling to them. It is the early hours of dawn when the day is still like a coy maiden, with the first rays of delicate, rosy tinted light streaking her pale cheeks.  I scramble out of bed, nudging my sleeping cousins, who crawl deeper into their quilts in response.
The house wears a shroud of serenity, which belies the frenzy of activities that will soon ensue. I sidle next to my paternal grandmother or ‘valliamma’ as we call her, helping myself to the milk biscuits that she religiously has with her morning coffee.  I listen to her going over the things planned for the day, as I dunk my biscuit into her glass of milky coffee and savour the sweet mush. The preparations and the festive air that precedes the festival, excites me more than the actual festival itself.  
When a little girl has her brand new silk skirt, the colour of a ripe pomegranate, trimmed with gold brocade, matching glass bangles that tinkle every time she moves her hands and little jhumkas (earrings) to complete the outfit; she wants nothing more from life- for that day. My cousins and I gather around our grandmother, dressed in our festive finery, which have been carefully chosen by her. She inspects each of us and adds her little touches; a smear of’ kajal’, a touch of talcum powder, smoothing out a ruffled pleat of a skirt. Her apparent joy in seeing us dolled up makes us silently vow, not to spoil our clothes or mess up our hair.

We troop out into the courtyard to help out with the flower carpet preparations, presided over by my grandmother. It is an ambitious project, but then, my grandmother is not known to do anything on a small scale. A talented artist bordering on genius, she has drawn an enormous picture of a little Krishna leaning against an ivory colored calf, a golden flute on his lips, under an arbour of multi colored flowers and creepers . Aunts, uncles, house helps, are all engrossed in various stages of preparations. There is a certain invisible hierarchy that is in play. The minions fetch the flowers and the leaves, sort it according to color and shred it to tiny bits, so that it looks like a smooth carpet when it is done. The more ‘talented assistants’ follow instructions and slowly use the flowers to add life to the picture, sometimes mixing two or three flowers to get that perfect shade. In the center of it all, sits my grandmother orchestrating this symphony of flowers.

It is almost noon and the great dining hall has been cleared of all furniture, cleaned and lined with straw coloured reed mats on the ebony coloured floor. Fresh banana leaves are placed in front of the mats and from a distance it looks like the room is framed with borders of beige and green. The center of the room is lined with a plethora of dishes in gleaming steel and brass utensils. There is steaming hot, fluffy rice to be doused with ghee and salted dal, the colour of daffodils. Sambar the quintessential lentil stew, tangy rasam ; avial, the medley of vegetables in a coconut paste, thorans, crisp, flavourful vegetable stir-fry spiked with shallots and a dash of freshly grated coconut, crunchy papadams and an assortment of chips, pickles, relishes and almost all the sidekicks that make up a malayalee sadhya. For dessert there are payasams; at least two kinds.  The entire family sits down to partake of this festive meal, like generations before us. The dishes remain the same over the years, the people sitting down to eat change; some new faces gets added some fade away.

Towards late afternoon, as the gluttony induced coma slowly ebbs, we race upstairs to the ‘unjal muri’ or the ‘swing room’ to claim the best seats on the swing. It is a huge rectangular shaped room, fringed on all sides with windows painted a mint green, bare except for a huge swing which hangs in the middle. The swing itself is gigantic and can easily hold six of us , painted to echo the same mint green colour of the windows. Most of the paint has peeled away revealing how popular it is with the inmates of the house. A room exclusively allotted to enjoy the pleasures that only a swing can provide. Some days we swing higher and higher till our  feet almost touches the ceiling and everything around us blurs and for those deliciously agonizing moments, it is just us, the wind in our hair and our heaving insides. On other days we lounge on its broad surface, devouring a good book or simply day dreaming, as it gently rocks us to and fro.
After we are sufficiently dizzy and nauseous, but miraculously ravenous enough to ponder on the snacks that will be served with tea; we ambush the harried cook, who is yet to recover from the lunch fiasco. There is pazhampori, batter coated sweetened bananas; plump ,crisp and golden brown and ‘elayada’  a  mixture of honey coloured jaggery and fresh coconut smothered in sugar, sealed in a disc of rice flour dough, wrapped in a piece of banana leaf and steamed till cooked.  The filling transforms into a treacle like consistency lending the perfect balance to the bland rice flour coating, and the burst of flavours as I bite into it is nothing short of alchemy.
The day slowly takes its last bow, amidst games, laughter, lively conversations and creating memories to last a life time.

Onam is perhaps one of the rare festivals that celebrate a demon king and his triumph over the gods. As the legendary king Mahabali who was banished to the netherworld, returns back for a day of revelry with his beloved subjects, how delightful it would be, to bring back our inner child, from the deepest recesses of our mind and spend a day filled with good food, family, laughter, games and the simple pleasures of life.
Happy Onam!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our beacon light

“St Josephs be our beacon light, in this wild and tempestuous night..
Be our radiant, guiding star o’er life’s troubled seas, till dawns eternity”

Some songs are so much a part of you, that the lyrics and the  melody  come to you magically, even though the last time you sung it maybe  a couple of decades ago; standing in  that expansive school ground, hemmed in on all sides by beautifully preserved school buildings, which are more than a 150 years old.  It’s the morning assembly time, when the scorching sun coats everything in your line of vision, in a hazy white layer, like looking through a curtain of ivory, gossamer thin mulmul or muslin.  The assembly always ends with the school pledge and the dramatic swooning of some students who cannot stand the heat and the subsequent scramble to whisk them away to the ‘sick room’. The girls file into the class rooms, smartly dressed in their navy blue pinafore, which falls exactly two inches below the knee.

There is something about school teachers that makes you gush like a school girl, even as you introduce your school going child to her. You remember the teachers along with their little quirks, the lessons they taught you, which ironically have little to do with academics and most importantly the quiet, unobtrusive way they helped you evolve from wide eyed, giggly girls to young ladies; ready to deal with real world outside the school.

The class rooms are bright and airy with high ceilings, exuding an old world charm, with wooden desks that have been used by generations of girls before you; the carved inscriptions giving you a glimpse into their school days. The class rooms open out into wide parapets, where you spend many a recess hour, sharing tasty morsels of lunch with your friends, while doling out delicious bits of school girl gossip or spread out your books, trying to coax your brain to cram in as much information as possible, before an exam. The first floor class rooms open out to wooden planked corridors that creak every time you run though it and makes you stop for second to ensure that it has not crumbled under your weight.

The chapel is like an oasis of calm in the frenzy of activity that marks a typical school day .It is cool and dark with an arched doorway and marble flooring which feels cold, even through your stockinged feet. You sit on the polished wooden pew, letting the scent of incense, the soothing soft murmur of a nun deep in prayer, her wooden rosary keeping count and the intermittent toll of the chapel bell lull you into a state of tranquility.

Outside the chapel, the school ground is abuzz with the hustle and bustle of lunch break. You come across a group of girls, deep into a game of lock and key or basket ball, someone trips and scrapes her knee and is taken to the office room, where the staff in charge brings out the large first aid box and dabs the wound with a smear of tincture of iodine, its startling purple shade covering up the wound. In the distance, you can hear the strains of the trumpets and the steady beat of the drums as the school band does its practice sessions. Sports day is fast approaching and the two opposing teams red house and blue house, recognizable with the red and blue badges practice hard to beat each other in an eternal battle for supremacy.

The screeching sound of the electric bell   as it slices through the quiet afternoon signifies the end of another long school day, filled with laughter, learning and friends. You pack your bags and say your goodbyes, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow you can do it all over again.

“Education is the movement from darkness to light”- Alan Bloom

Thank you St Josephs,  for being our  beacon light.

All photographs taken by the talented Saina Jayapal.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Take a little time – a note to my son from my 11 year old self

Dear Kanna,
If you can stretch your imagination far enough to a time, when you were a figment of imagination yourself, you can see her sitting crossed leg on the floor. She is wearing a blue frock, the color of the summer sky seen through wisps of tattered clouds. She is 11 years old, scrawny with untidy hair covering her forehead and a mischievous glint in her eyes, just like you. She looks up and smiles at you and her smile seems strangely familiar and comforting, like a beautiful melody sung in a foreign tongue.

As your 11th birthday inches closer, she wants to assure you that 11 is a wonderful age to be, an age where childhood is still friends with budding boyhood.
She wishes that you would take a little time, to savor this year and not be in a hurry to be a ‘big boy’, as these moments drenched in the sunshine of innocence, will leave everlasting memories when you are a ‘big boy’. Take a little time this year, to be comfortable in your own skin. As Dr Seuss quoted” “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You”. Good things happen when you don’t pretend to be what you are not.

She hopes as you sit side by side on the moss covered wall, brown legs swinging to and fro like an orchestrated performance, that you will take a little time to laugh, love and live rather than exist.
Take a little time to tell your loved ones what they mean to you, and realize that what you see in their eyes is perhaps the closest you will come to magic.

She prays, as she watches a tiny dimple jump down your cheek in response to a joke she cracked, that you will take a little time to cement in the cracks of failure and disappointment not with guilt or fear but perseverance and love, with some tears to soften the rough edges.

She whispers, as you tearfully bid her good bye that she wants you to take a little time to remember that the magic is within you.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The language of God

  As the car winds its way through the narrow roads of the quaint little village of Elangoor, sandwiched between layers of verdant greenery, spilling on to the sun dappled streets, my son is enthralled by the sheer beauty of the place. Local tea shops, ‘chaya kadas’, the quintessential countryside social hub, that brew fragrant milky tea and gossip with equal gusto, dot the scenic way. Its glass cases are piled high with artery clogging, soul satisfying, deep fried treats; ‘pazhampori’, banana fritters golden and crisp, spicy ‘bondas’, mashed potato spiced to perfection, batter coated and fried.

 Ironically, the first thing I notice is the silence that envelops the place; not the kind that is stifling and weighs you down, but the kind that washes over you and invites you to enjoy the moment. It follows me as we pull into my husband’s ancestral house, to spend a day with his grandmother. ‘Ammumma’ exudes a sense of serenity, an absence of restlessness or agitation; even time seems to glide by her in slow, graceful moments rather than the frenzied, hurried ticking I am accustomed to.

She is a lady of few words, but then, she is one of those people who radiates so much of warmth and positivity that words seems superfluous. Her delight in having us over is apparent in the lunch that she serves us; supervising the cooking herself, so that the ‘naadan chicken roast’ (one of my husband’s favorite dishes) is roasted just so, redolent of coconut oil, crisp curry leaves and toasted bits of coconut and the baby mango pickle, tart, spicy and delicious is taken out of the huge ceramic urns or ‘bharanis’, where they are preserved with a thick layer of oil, especially for the visiting great grandchild.

“I’m a year younger than this house, I’ve lived here all my life” she tells me, mildly amused at my fascination with it. The house, like most old houses where generations of a family have lived their multiple lives under its roof, is full of character. It is filled with unexpected nooks and crannies and echoes of countless laughter, conversation, and memories resonating off of its walls.

She talks to me about her childhood in this house, the mango saplings she planted around the house, of how she loved spending time among trees and plants who are still her friends, of how she has discovered a new passion; collecting exotic recipes. I am humbled and inspired by her enthusiasm and zest for life; the way she has kept her sense of wonder intact. I discover that she has learnt the art of befriending her solitude rather than fearing it or despising it.

As Rumi quoted “Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation”

realize then, that she has deciphered the language of God.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A whiff of petrichor

There is something so incredibly heady and refreshing about the scent of freshly harvested mint, that makes you want to close your eyes and let it permeate your senses. It lingers long afterwards, clinging to the tip of your fingers and wafting past your nose like a sliver of nostalgia. It comes to me one evening as I was harvesting my crop of mint, that I was actually seeing instead merely looking. I was beginning to paying attention to the things around me and the way my senses responded to it.
 Gardening demands your attention, not little-distracted pieces of it, but being fully present both in body and spirit. It nudges you to enjoy the process, without the assurance of a happy future. Not all the saplings we plant or the seeds we sow grow into healthy plants. Gardening comes with its own set of failures .So then, we must nurture our happiness by enjoying the process and sprucing it up with healthy doses of hope and dreams, as it is with life.
 Gardening opens up a whole new world of wonder, which I had been hitherto blind to. The  way the texture of the  leaves of each plant, differs from the other, almost as if it  were its fingerprints, the bittersweet petrichor that emanates, as the first drops of water touch the soil, parched from the scorching summer sun, the taste of the freshly harvested  produce; crisp and delicious  with undertones of  distilled sunshine. If purity had a taste, it would be this.
Bounty from my terrace garden
Gardening I soon discover, persuades you albeit in a kindly way, to accept the fact that you have to let go of things you have been clinging on to. A batch of crop that you nurtured as saplings, protected from pests and weeds have to be discarded once their yield span is finished, the soil is turned and new seeds are sown. Letting go of things, whether it is a bad relationship, memories or simply a bad habit can be excruciatingly painful and difficult. When you are told to let go and move on, it is akin to being spoken to in a foreign tongue. Nothing makes sense. It makes you nervous and uncomfortable, the thought of that alien place, where you no longer will be able to hide in the haze of your sad memories. So you cling on to the known enemy, wary of the unknown friend. Perhaps then, letting go is the belief that your life can be turned around, just like the soil, ready to sow fresh seeds of hopes, dreams and relationships.

“Only this actual moment is life” - Thich Nhat Hanh

Gardening makes me realize this every single day. It is  like a whiff of petrichor for my parched soul.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Becoming Real

'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.” 
 Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit is a book, I read as a child and re-read with my son, as an adult. It is one of those books in which you stumble upon new nuances, when you read it at different stages of your life. When you are younger, you tend to put yourself in the shoes of the velveteen rabbit; wanting ‘It’ to happen to you, albeit rather slowly but surely.   You crave to be understood, even if you are inclined to break easily or have rather sharp edges. You want to be loved, for the person that you truly are; with all your scars and stories.

December 2011: It is early evening. I have been sitting in the same position for the last half hour, trying to get my six year old son to study for a spelling test. Nachikaet, who is a free spirited soul (which is a sugar coated way of saying, that he cannot stay put for more than a minute) is in his elements; producing written work which look like hieroglyphics, erasing the above mentioned hieroglyphics with such fury, that the terrified eraser has no option but to fly out of his hands and hit me squarely in the eye. Something snaps within me and the next in ten minutes involves   smacks and comparisons with ’smarter’ class mates. He doesn’t refute any of my accusations, he looks into my eyes, tears streaming down his pencil-lead stained face and whispers quietly “I still love you, amma"

Strangely, it is the Velveteen rabbit that I think of at that moment.
 Here I am, hurting him physically, wounding his dignity and labeling him, just because he couldn't memorize a few spellings and my little boy assures me that he loves me and accepts me with all my quirks, unconditionally. At that moment, I feel deeply ashamed of myself. I realize that I need to accept his weaknesses with the same attitude that I accept his strengths. I need to lace my fingers with his, rather than point it at him. From this safe position, we can deal with correcting mistakes, together.

When I read the story again with my son, I imagine the story from the perspective of the little boy, who loves the rabbit unconditionally, despite his shabby appearance and fallen whiskers. To love your loved ones so fully, embracing their imperfections and being thankful for their presence in your life, seems to me the best way to make them real. In the process, as the Skin horse says, though not all at once, maybe you become real too.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Like a mother

One of the things I enjoy most during trips to my parents' house, is the opportunity to ask exciting questions like “What are we having for breakfast today?” “Is that masala being prepared for tonight’s chicken curry?” or answer contentedly, “Yes, pooris will do very well for dinner” “No, I can’t have another helping; that was one of the best biriyanis I have had in a long time”
   After weeks of menu planning, lunch boxes and weekend specials, the idea of being blissfully ignorant about meal menus, seems strangely liberating.

Watching my mother cook food, gives me as much pleasure as eating what she has made. The way her hands move fluidly, spreading the dosa batter in concentric circles, the way she drizzles ghee around the edges; not like a cook but like a mother.
The way she deftly flips the crisp, paper thin dosas with edges like gold filigree on to my plate, fills me with a childlike glee.

Most times, on the second not later than the third day of my visit, my mother makes ‘moussaka’, that quintessentially Greek dish, with layers of fried potatoes, aubergines and delicately spiced succulent minced meat, doused in a creamy b├ęchamel sauce and topped with cheese. She bakes it till it forms a golden brown crust and the whole kitchen gets filled with aromas, that makes you want to bottle it up and save it. After that, she scoops out a large portion of the dish onto my plate, not waiting for it to cool down as is traditionally done; exactly like a mother.  

It’s the early hours of morning; my eyes are heavy with sleep and my heart is heavy with a deep sorrow, which comes from having to leave earlier than planned and knowing that it would be months again, before I come back to my parent’s home. I sit at the kitchen table, with my fingers wrapped around a steaming mug of tea and watch my sister wrap a loaf of banana bread that she baked at dawn, for her nephew.  Her fingers move delicately, peeling off the parchment in one deft stroke. She wraps it up neatly, making sure there is enough for him to carry to school too; not like an aunt, but like a mother.
I wish at that moment, she could see herself through my eyes.
How lovely it would be, if we could see ourselves once in a while, not like an unrelenting critic, but like a mother.